Drinks are named for places, religions, sweethearts, politicians, even political parties. Some drinks draw their names from song lyrics, some reflect ideas and aspirations. And some have names are utterly inscrutable, like the Corn ’n Oil Cocktail.
The Corn ’n Oil is a cross between a rum old-fashioned and a rum sour, depending on your tastes, that boasts spicy, nutty falernum as its sweetener.
Most of what we pretend to know about the drink is speculative. The fact that its hallmark sweetener, falernum, is of Barbadian origin suggests that Corn ’n Oil likely originated on that island, but we don’t know when, and we don’t have any idea who might have first mixed it.
For that matter, even the invention of falernum is a bit hazy. The first commercial brand, Taylor, appeared in the 1890s, but it seems likely that the lime-and-spice syrup had existed as a homemade Barbadian standard for a long time before that.
In fact, “homemade” seems to be the key to this cocktail. The Corn ’n Oil is conceptually similar to Ti’ Punch, in that it seems to have been around for a very long time, flying under the radar; it’s simple to make, with lime, local rum, and sweetener (it doesn’t even require a shaker); and it doesn’t seem to have a “standard” formula. You just mix it to taste, heavy on the falernum or heavy on the rum, according to your mood.
Corn ’n Oil Cocktail
- 2 oz Barbados rum (Plantation 5 Year Barbados, Mount Gay Eclipse)
- ½ oz falernum (Taylor Velvet Falernum)
- 2 dashes aromatic bitters (Bittercube Blackstrap or Angostura)
Build the drink by stirring all ingredients with ice in a rocks glass. Optionally garnish with a lime wedge, which may be squeezed into the drink according to taste.
The Corn ’n Oil formula seems to be completely unpublished until about ten years ago, when Murray Stenson started to promote it at Seattle’s Zig Zag Café, and began a revival of sorts. Stenson, perhaps playing off the “Oil” part of the drink’s name, popularized a version made with Cruzan Blackstrap rum, a particularly dark, assertive rum from St. Croix that looks very much like old motor oil.
Blackstrap is dominated by molasses and licorice, and I do not enjoy it. The original concept, using lighter Barbadian rums, works well for me. The Plantation 5 Year Barbados rum is my favorite choice; I’ve not tried it with Mount Gay Eclipse, but I expect that would work well, too.
With no published historical guidance, we’re on our own in setting proportions. I find that this 4:1 formula works well, but there are versions that are radically different. There is a recipe for Corn ’n Oil on the back label of Taylor Falernum that suggests mixing 3½ ounces of falernum with one ounce of rum. Setting my cynicism aside, I gave that version a try. As it turns out, that formula makes a very drinkable cocktail, sweet but pleasant.
But I like my rum drinks to be rum drinks, so I prefer the Corn ’n Oil in its more typical rum-forward styling, 3:1 or 4:1 rum-to-falernum, as listed above. In my experience, the drink should be either falernum-heavy or rum-heavy; ratios like 2:1 or 1:1 just don’t seem to work very well. One of the ingredients has to dominate.
Falernum is a low-alcohol liqueur of rum, sugar, lime, nuts and spices, and makes a delightful sweetener with rum. The lime component is barely there, at least in the Taylor Falernum, and so there seems to be a tradition of serving Corn ’n Oil with a wedge of lime, which the drinker can squeeze over the drink at his or her discretion. Some recipes—especially those that specify Cruzan Blackstrap—include lime juice directly in the mix. (Like I said, depending on your tastes, this could be either a fancy old-fashioned or, with the lime, a sour. I’m not taking sides.)
You can add a couple dashes of aromatic bitters, though the falernum carries a pronounced element of spice. Bittercube’s Blackstrap bitters is particularly well suited to this drink, though most recipes suggest Angostura.
But why is it called “Corn ’n Oil”?
That awkward, unappealing name is a mystery.
My bet is that it’s a corruption or abbreviation of a Barbadian name or phrase, but no one has ever come up with a sensible candidate.
The most interesting speculation is that the name comes from a biblical source, which Dave Stolte has written up at HomeBarBasics. It’s a stretch, but it’s as good as any other guess.
Wherever the name came from, Corn ’n Oil is a delightful rum drink, and a fun alternative to the venerable Daiquiri on a hot summer day. It’s easy to make, and with the falernum as a sweetener, it presents a spicier, more complex flavor than the typical rum old-fashioned or the basic rum sour.
Historians tell us that the rum industry originated on Barbados, so the Corn ’n Oil represents in a glass the island’s rum heritage. Here’s to Barbados, to its rums, and to the unknown inventors of falernum and the Corn ’n Oil Cocktail.
“Rum and Falernum — the Corn ’n Oil Cocktail” at cold-glass.com : All text and photos © 2016 Douglas M. Ford. All rights reserved.
I first came across this drink years ago when someone at Strip Club made a version with Prairie vodka, blackstrap rum, and fallernum. It tasted a bit like a bourbon old fashioned. At home I’ve always made a version of this but with white rum in place of the vodka and the addition of blackstrap bitters. There is certainly lots of room to play with a drink like this.
Vodka. That would certainly be a way to cut the assertive blackstrap. But I like your idea of the white rum instead. I plan to give it a try. Thanks!
Thank you Doug. As a “hobbiest homebartender” I am very appreciative of your body of work here on Cold-glass. I have seen several recipes utilizing this name and I must say until I saw this one I was un-inspired. I made mine with white rum, crushed ice and swizzled prior to adding the bitters atop the drink. This made it appear to be a close-up picture of Jupiter’s atmosphere. Love the taste and the look! Btw, I live in Minneapolis, great to know you’re a local; Cheers!
It’s great to hear from local readers, thanks for the good words.
“Jupiter’s atmosphere,” that’s amusing. I’m glad you’ve found a version of Corn ‘n Oil that works for you—I like the idea of doing it up as a swizzle. I’ll try it next time. Thanks.
My personal speculation- no proof whatsoever- is that this was what “the colonel” drank. And through poor listening and a Barbados patoi, “colonel” (especially given the yankee pronunciation as “kernel”) when slowed down with a Barbados patoi, “kone-n’el” or ker’n-ell might sound like “cone n oil“.
Nice article Doug — there is indeed a version of the Corn and Oil published prior to Zig-Zag’s putting it on their menu circa 2006: Dave Broom’s indispensable 2003 book, “Rum” – he doesn’t source it but he visited Barbados for the book research, and the recipe is also the simplest version I’ve seen: “Stir together 30 ml (~1 oz) ESA Field’s White Rum, 30 ml (~1 oz) Taylor’s Velvet Falernum, dash of Angostura bitters. Pour over crushed ice.” Maybe Murray Stenson was inspired by Broom’s publishing of it, as the book would have been new-ish in 2006. I also found a brief reference to the Corn and Oil being served at the rooftop bar of the old Hotel Caribbee near Bridgetown, Barbados in a June 9, 1963 Miami Herald article: “. . . a local explosive [drink] known as corn and oil – rum mixed with falernum.” Too bad the article didn’t give a full recipe! As much as I like blackstrap rum, I like the aged Barbadian rum versions best. The search goes on . . .
Tom, my apologies for taking so long to reply—I somehow missed this when it arrived. Anyway, that’s a good catch on Broom’s 2003 listing. I have the book, but didn’t think to check it as I was writing this. Thanks for the update. (And I’m with you, I’ll take an aged Barbadian any day…)